Academic life before HERS

So how were consumer judgements made about universities before the arrival of rankings? Andersson and Mayer (2017) argue that the only ‘measure’ of a university, outside normal disciplinary knowledge, was that of its reputation which was largely a matter of history rather than current reality. Older better-known universities could not ‘lose’ and new universities could never ‘win’ and gain recognition, other than by limited ‘word of mouth’ recommendation. Whilst it was possible to build a reputation in this way, it was at best painfully slow because gaining a reputation is inevitably much harder than losing one.

Sawyer et al. (2009) suggest that the value of the ‘old university’ was intrinsic and intangible. The intangible values pursued by old university models mostly represented freedom of thought and a search for higher knowledge. These intangible values were typically not measurable, most being relative rather than absolute. Freedom for one individual often represented restriction for another and intangible values were not tradable in the marketplace. The old university, characterised by differentiation and discretion, had become inflexible. Sawyer et al. (2009) identify some reasons why the old universities were transformed:

  • • These institutions could not accommodate their governments’ need to educate more students.
  • • They were slow to respond to student demand for market-related courses.
  • • Decision making had become unaccountable and slow.
  • • Top-down accountability was absent.
  • • The role of stakeholders was poorly defined, and the performance of the university was often not measurable.

Contemporary universities often behave like companies with no shareholders, sometimes operating with a declining government subsidy, and trying to maximise sales in a market with excess demand. Student demand is paramount, and the determinants of demand have become the determinants of the university. Institutional change means that universities are now often conditioned by monetary rather than intangible values (Sawyer, Johnson, & Holub, 2009). The model of higher education has changed to one that is both expensive to run and difficult to reform as a result of its focus on status, its view of students as customers, and its growing reliance on top-down administration (Mills, 2012).

The rise of private institutions

The growing importance of private institutions and the tendency to privatise the public sector are key international trends (Altbach et al., 2009; Havergal, 2015). As the demand for higher education increases, especially in countries like India, Brazil and China, so has the need to privatise existing universities or build new private institutions. The situation is even more critical in the poorest African countries (Havergal, 2015) where, in the period 1991-2006, the number of students quadrupled, while the available public resources increased by no more than 75% (Okebukola, 2013; Ndoye, 2008). The World Bank estimates that private enrolments account for 24% of all tertian' enrolments in the African region (Havergal, 2015).

To meet expanding social needs in local communities, institutions of lesser status are expanding rapidly and new institutions are coming into existence (Hawkings, 2008), explaining the move towards a diversified mode of providing funding through the participation of private or non-state players in higher education (Yat Wai Lo, 2014). Non-traditional financial sources such as capital endowment, commercialisation of teaching, research and services, loans at privileged interest rates and grants from tycoon and charity organisations become more and more common and important (Yat Wai Lo, 2014). This privatisation trend is not limited to developing nations but is increasingly prevalent amongst developed nations too (Pouris & Ho, 2014; Havergal, 2015). Today, some 30% of global higher education enrolment is in the private sector (Altbach et al., 2009). Altbach et al. (2009) explain their notion of privatisation as:

the necessity for institutions and systems to earn income in order to pay for (at least part of) their operation. Privatisation can include, as has been discussed in this trend report, higher tuition fees and other charges to students so that a part of the cost of education is shared by students. It can also mean earning funds from consulting, licensing, selling the intellectual property of various kinds, university and industry collaboration that produces income, renting university property, and many other sources of income.


This increased privatisation and commercialisation of higher education has also been instrumental in promoting more industry-relevant curricula and higher-demand programmes in the hope of future monetary and non-monetary benefits over a student’s lifetime (Choa, 2013), especially in subjects such as business management, accounting, computer science and economics (Havergal, 2015; Choa, 2013). Marginson & Rhoades (2002) suggest that the interactions between local, national and global players do not need to work in a linear pattern but can operate in a more complex way through which universities are able to move into international niches whilst serving local communities simultaneously. Academic units within an institution, institutions and system-level authorities can be seen as various autonomous cells and can operate within a complex inter-relationship network and at the local, national and/or global dimensions at the same time (Jones, 2008).

The potential dangers of making ‘profit’ an important education goal is that the providers tend to offer courses that require limited infrastructure investment and are cheaper to deliver, which puts critically important subjects like medicine and engineering in a vulnerable position (Havergal, 2015). Additionally, the use of a business model for higher education emphasises a growing need to improve the quality of instruction (Bok, 2003) and self-evaluation as a quality assurance procedure (Teichler 2004). In some countries governments have been unable to introduce quality assurance systems or, even when they have done so, lack the resources to undertake appropriate enforcement (Havergal, 2015). Furthermore, there are consequences that impact on the internal functioning of the institution as well. Sawyer et al. (2009) explains that the intrapersonal contracts or human interactions between academics, students, management and administrators change when an institution behaves like a firm. The academic contract with students changed appreciably with the corporate university for two main reasons. First, education is now a product, and it is an increasingly standardised product. The effect of standardisation is to reduce the discretionary authority of the academic.

Second, university management perceives a student as a fee-paying customer and academics become more accountable to students (Sawyer et al., 2009).

The explosion of student numbers and academic responsibilities increased the number of administrative tasks. As with the contract with the student, the implicit contract between the academic and the administrator inverted. Academics became accountable to a growing number of administrators (Mills, 2012). One of the changes of the neo-liberal state of higher education lies in its growing number of administrators and declining number of academics (Lee, 2004). The professor who takes time out from teaching and research to devote themselves to administration for a few years is increasingly an anachronism (Mills, 2012).

According to Sawyer et al. (2009), academics subcontracted tasks to the administrators to such an extent that they became reliant on administrators. Administrators became better informed than academics about procedures and information within the university. Therefore, administrators assumed the role of decision-makers. Between 1998 and 2008, private colleges increased their spending on instruction by 22% while they increased their spending on administration and staff support by 36% (Mills 2012). During the G8 grouping of the leading Australian universities, there are now at least 1.3 administrators for every academic (Sawyer et al., 2009).

Perhaps the greatest relationship transformation has been through the separation of management and academia. There are now two types of academics: those who pursue management and forego teaching and research; and those who continue to teach and to research. Few academics know' of the information which underwrites management decisions and academics are increasingly accountable to management (Sawyer et al., 2009).

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